How rapid digital upscaling is enabling health charities to meet Covid-19 challenges

In the face of spiralling demand, Kirsty Marrins reports on a sector that has taken the leap online to communicate across a pandemic

Coronavirus has forced many charities to adapt rapidly to a “new normal”. Face-to-face services are no longer possible and income is at huge risk as fundraising events have been cancelled or pivoted to online.

Priorities are ever-changing as organisations wait to hear the latest government guidance and how it will affect the people they support. For staff, this has been coupled with an adjustment to working from home while juggling families, home schooling and more.

Health charities in particular have faced huge spikes in calls to helplines, enquiries by social media and traffic to their websites as people try to navigate what the virus means for their conditions.

“The first thing we were struck by was the unprecedented rise in the number of calls to our helpline and a surge in online activity across our social channels and forum,” says Polly Cook, digital service transformation lead at Parkinson’s UK. “People were desperate to know how coronavirus would affect them and confused by the government’s advice on self-isolation and social distancing.”

The first thing we noticed was an unprecedented rise in the number of calls to our helpline and a surge in online activity. People were desperate to know how the virus would affect them

Polly Cook, digital service transformation lead, Parkinson's UK

The charity estimates that the number of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s will increase by 20 per cent by 2030. A year ago it set out to scale up its information and support services in response, through an ambitious service transformation programme called Parkinson’s Connect. When the coronavirus hit, pivoting from its carefully planned roadmap was essential if it was going to offer immediate support.

“The first thing we needed to do was understand how things had changed and what the most important issues were for us to focus on straight away,” says Cook.

“We undertook a week of user research and used a load of data from interviews, our case management system and a range of other sources to better understand what the most pressing priorities were.”

Establishing clear priorities helped the charity identify which areas of Parkinson’s Connect to bring forward and develop, and it is currently prototyping ideas that will go on to be tested with people who have Parkinson’s and their families.

Cook is keen to stress that there will be challenges. “We’re doing this far quicker than we had intended and having to adapt to new ways of working,” she says. “But we’re determined to get these services live quickly in order to help support the 145,000 people currently living with Parkinson’s in the UK.”

Fellow health charity Versus Arthritis experienced a 71 per cent increase in the number of calls to its helpline from February to March, and its existing virtual assistant, AVA, saw a 230 per cent increase in the number of enquiries.

In response, it decided to develop a Covid-19-specific virtual assistant to support the 1.5 million people in the UK with arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions who have to isolate for 12 weeks or who think they are at risk.

In just two weeks, with support from, the artificial intelligence specialist company, it created Cova, a Coronavirus chatbot, to help answer the most pressing questions for people with arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions covering medical advice (in particular, medication), self isolation, maintaining mental and physical health and managing work and finances.

Cova was launched just before the Easter Bank Holiday weekend – a crucial time because the helpline would not be open – and it was accessed by 500 people that weekend alone and 1,800 times from launch to the end of April.

“We’ve been able to develop Cova so quickly because we’ve invested in the infrastructure, and upskilled the team to be agile,” says Amanda Neylon, director of insight, data and technology.

“At the moment Cova is a minimum viable product, but it’s learning every day from AVA, which has been around for four years.

“It’s important that health charities have an agile approach to digital service delivery, and the coronavirus has proved how crucial it is to be able to quickly adapt.”

For people with cancer, this is a particularly worrying time. Macmillan Cancer Support reported that calls to its support line specifically about Covid-19 soared by 1,600 per cent during March.

In response, the charity created a “coronavirus hub” on its website, full of the latest information and guidance for people affected by cancer and healthcare professionals. The page has had more than 160,000 views since the beginning of March.

Chief executive Lynda Thomas says the charity has been doing “everything it can” to support service users through the pandemic.

“250 Macmillan Support Line staff moved to remote working in a matter of days and we’re developing plans for how Macmillan’s brilliant volunteers can continue to be there for people through a telephone buddying service,” she says.

“We’ve also moved additional staff across to our email and webchat teams, because we’ve seen a rise in the use of those digital services in the last few weeks.”

If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that it’s crucial to invest in the infrastructure and digital skills and capabilities of your staff. Those who have put the work in have been able to rapidly adjust their communications and meet the urgent needs of their service users at a time when their services are
needed most.

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